By Danielle DeSimone
Most Navy deployments last six to nine months – or longer. That’s nine months spent away from family, friends and solid ground, all while working to ensure the safety of the seas and our nation’s freedoms. COVID-19 has made this even more challenging, as most deployments have been extended with no confirmed end date. Additionally, health regulations have barred many ships from coming into port meaning sailors, naval aviators and Marines must stay onboard the ship for months at a time.
These conditions can be stressful and isolating for service members, which is why the USO has stepped in to support the Navy during COVID-19.
How COVID-19 is Affecting Deployed Navy Ships
The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for all branches of the U.S. military, but deployed service members in the Navy have faced a unique set of challenges, as their deployments are typically out at sea. Whether they’re on an aircraft carrier or a destroyer, sea deployments often mean tight quarters, stressful days and hostile waters.
On a normal deployment, getting to dock approximately once a month and set foot on solid ground is a highlight for the sailors, Marines and aviators aboard these ships, as it offers them a break from their daily duties and a chance to explore new cities in another part of the world. Under normal, non-pandemic circumstances, service members can also visit USO centers at certain ports, where USO teams would usually provide events and support in exploring the surrounding area. These activities boost morale and provide a nice change from service members’ daily routine on the ship.
However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Navy ships have been ordered not to come into port, meaning that service members currently aboard these ships have been stuck at sea for months. Some have been at sea for nearly half a year. Of the Navy ships that do come into port, their visit is far from normal. Service members must stay quarantined, away from contact with others, to ensure no exposure and spread of COVID-19 on the ship.
“Almost every ship we reach out to support immediately tells us this has been one of the most difficult deployments they have experienced in their entire careers,” said Center Operations and Programs Manager Alex Liccione of USO Dubai. “So, since ships cannot come to us, bringing programming out to them is key to continuing the USO’s mission to strengthen America’s military service members during these unconventional times.”
How the USO is Supporting Deployed Navy
Normally, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the USO Dubai team would have hosted a Fourth of July barbecue for service members who came into port that week. With COVID-19 restrictions keeping them out at sea, the USO Dubai team had to get creative with how they offered support to Navy ships.
They created what is internally called USO Dubai’s “Support our Ships (S.O.S.)” program, which is intended to lift the morale of service members stuck out at sea during these trying times. After reaching out to multiple Navy commands, the team created activities and programs for those on board, each one customized to the service members’ requests and interests. From there, the USO worked closely with the Navy to ensure the shipment and delivery of the activity boxes.
One ship that had experienced a particularly difficult and stressful deployment requested a spa night program-in-a-box, which included face masks, lotion, face wash and other toiletries. Another ship informed the USO team that they had a lot of Marvel Comics fans onboard, so they received a Marvel-themed trivia night activity. A sailor onboard the ship ran the trivia event and winning service members received prizes such as Bluetooth speakers, video games and other electronics via the USO. Other activity boxes included arts and crafts, board games and movie night supplies.
Similarly, service members deployed to ships docking in Rota, Spain, were not able to leave quarantine and explore any parts of Spain while in port. So, USO Rota, in partnership with Morale Welfare and Recreation (MWR), came up with a few activities the service members could safely do on-base. This included events such as a pool pizza party, where the USO installed an outdoor pool and delivered pizza and sodas to an isolated area for all to enjoy and take a break from their daily routine.
On the island of Guam, the USO stepped up to provide support for the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which hit headlines this spring when multiple sailors on board tested positive for COVID-19. The USO Guam team quickly prepared and sent 11,000 USO Care Packages filled with snacks and hygiene kits to quarantined service members housed on Guam and those sailors still working aboard the ship.
The USO Guam team also provided Wi-Fi connectivity hot spots, so that quarantined service members could be entertained during the long hours alone, as well as stay connected to their loved ones back home. Additionally, USO Guam provided hot meals for military security and medical teams who were working long shifts to ensure the health and safety of USS Theodore Roosevelt sailors.
Providing such support required close collaboration with the U.S. Navy and adhering to strict health and safety regulations, but they made all the difference in the deployments of these sailors.
The Importance of Boosting Morale on Navy Ships
Snacks, face masks and a night of trivia might seem like small gestures, given the stress of a global pandemic and the difficulty of serving on the front lines. But to our service members, these small moments to themselves in which they can relax and think of something other than their deployment can make all the difference.
The effect on service members out at sea who have received this support has been overwhelmingly positive and many have reached out to USO to express their gratitude and emphasize the importance of programs such as this:
On behalf of the leadership and crew of the USS Stout, I respectfully submit this letter in appreciation of your thoughtfulness and support you have demonstrated through making and providing the fantastic games, prizes, snacks, decorations and activities to the crew. The generosity of people working ashore for us and donating these items, to be provided to the sailors onboard, makes me truly grateful. Thank you so very much! Please accept our gratitude to you and everyone in the group for your generosity. You absolutely had a tremendous impact on improving the morale of the sailors onboard!
–U.S. Navy Command Master Chief Ryan G. Marlatt.
Thank you so much for this contest. I have to say, not hitting any ports for the whole thing has been such a drag … Thank you for coming up with a creative way for deployed military members to have some fun, please make more for the future!
-U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Jennifer Imbimbo wrote to the USO Dubai team
Meanwhile, sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt collectively raised $1,800 through a deployment T-shirt sale and donated it to USO Guam as a thank you for all of their support while the crew on the ship was quarantined.
“The sailors recognized the tremendous support being provided by Naval Base Guam and those all around the island, and were specifically awestruck by how selflessly the men and women of the USO dedicated themselves to the sailors each day during our unexpected stay,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Yonkman, the maintenance officer of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron EIGHT (HSC-8) “Eightballers,” and an isolation location Officer in Charge (OIC).
“We unanimously agreed to donate all proceeds [from ‘deployment T-shirts’] to ‘USO Guam’ for all the amazing care and support they have provided for the TR’s crew. Once the sailors knew the project would benefit the local USO, the response and support were overwhelming.”
The USO does not carry out its mission of supporting American military members for the gratitude, but these words of thanks emphasize the importance of adapting quickly to new challenges and ensuring that we continue to boost the morale of our service members during these uncertain times, regardless of the obstacles that stand in the way.
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